Book Review: Contempt of Court

BY FAITH JONES

Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism, written by the late Chattanooga attorney Leroy Phillips Jr and Dallas Morning News legal writer Mark Curriden, depicts a lesser known narrative that surrounds the Forest Hills Graveyard in St. Elmo. On the night of January 23, 1906, Nevada Taylor was assaulted by an unidentifiable man on her way home, located on the grounds of the cemetery. Ed Johnson, a black man who fit Nevada’s vague description, was charged for assault and rape. The state lawyers assigned to Johnson’s case fought against a loaded prosecution and judge, but Johnson was ultimately found guilty and was sentenced to be lynched. 

Curriden and Phillips masterfully rebuilds Johnson’s forgotten case,  using court transcripts and newspaper clippings, that was ultimately picked up by two prominent black attorneys in Chattanooga that weren’t even involved in Johnson’s case. They appealed Johnson’s lynch sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court where Justice Harlan issued a stay of execution to Johnson, saving him from the death penalty. The authors show how Johnson’s lawyers used the basic rights to the states found in the  Fourteenth Amendment, and influenced by the right to fair trial found in the Sixth Amendment, launched an era of challenging self-serving state court systems.  Due to the public’s belief that there was federal “interference” with the  stay of execution, a mob went to the unguarded jail cell of Johnson where he was dragged and later lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge. 


Faith is a corporate communicator by day and staff editor/writer by night. She’ll probably shed a tear if you don’t believe in the Oxford comma. As a child, she spent time rolling down the hills of Tennessee, riding a tractor, and cheering for the Tennessee Volunteers. Scout, her trusty dog sidekick, chews on her bone while she writes at home and frequently convinces her to get outside. Faith is a first generation college and graduate student with hopes of helping people communicate their ideas in the best way possible.

Danny G